Georgia Tech Ph.D. students and postdocs host AbGradCon 2018 this week. AbGradCon stands for Astrobiology Graduate Conference. The popular gathering provides a unique setting for attendees to share research, collaborate, and network.
The meeting is for and by early-career scientists addressing the broad questions of astrobiology: How did life start? Where else does life exist? How could humans search for life outside Earth?
AbGradCon 2018 brings to the fore Georgia Tech’s standing in astrobiology research and education. Georgia Tech leads in training scientists who will direct space exploration in the 21st century.
George Tan chairs the organizing committee. He is a Ph.D. student of Amanda Stockton, in the School of Chemistry and Biochemistry. Working with Tan were more than a dozen other Ph.D. students or postdoctoral researchers.
Organizers expect 96 attendees: 72 from the U.S. and 24 from overseas, Tan says. They come from nine countries: Brazil, Canada, Czech Republic, Germany, India, Japan, Mexico, United Kingdom, and United States.
“We have a big astrobiology community at Tech. This is the perfect opportunity for us to network with students and postdocs with similar interests. I also learned a lot about planning conferences,” says Adriana Lozoya. She is a Ph.D. student of Nicholas Hud, in the School of Chemistry and Biochemistry. Hud is also a member of the Parker H. Petit Institute for Bioengineering and Bioscience (IBB).
“It’s been a great experience getting all the moving parts to work to make this conference exciting and worthwhile for all attendees,” says Marcus Bray. He is a Ph.D. student of Jennifer Glass, in the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences. Glass is also an IBB member.
Major funding for the meeting came from the NASA Astrobiology Institute. Other sponsors are:
- ACS Earth and Space Chemistry
- Earth-Life Science Institute
- Georgia Tech Astrobiology
- Georgia Tech College of Sciences
- Georgia Tech Institute for Electronics and Nanotechnology
- John Templeton Foundation
- Nature Publishing Group
- Simons Foundation
“We can’t thank our sponsors enough,” Tan says. “Their generosity markedly enhanced our ability to prepare the best possible program and accommodate close to a hundred participants.”
“I look forward to the many informal discussions over the week,” says Rebecca Rapf. She is a postdoctoral researcher with Kevin Wilson at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab. “I’m sure they will lead to productive collaborations and long-term friendships with people who will be our peers throughout our careers.”
David M. Collard, professor and associate dean, will serve as interim dean of the College of Sciences. Collard will officially assume the role Aug. 1, following the departure of the current dean, Paul Goldbart.
“Dr. Collard is a valued member of the faculty and administration in the College of Sciences,” said Rafael L. Bras, provost and executive vice president for Academic Affairs and K. Harrison Brown Family Chair. “We are grateful for his continued leadership and trust the College is in great hands during this transition.”
Collard joined the Georgia Tech faculty in the School of Chemistry and Biochemistry in 1991. He served as the director of Graduate Studies from 1997 to 2005, and then as associate chair from 2005 to 2010.
Collard has served as the associate dean for Academic Programs in the College of Sciences since 2010. In this role he coordinates activities related to recruitment, retention, curricula, instructional facilities, scholarships, and awards.
He also directs initiatives to broaden participation in STEM, build capacity for undergraduate research, and foster partnerships with neighboring, predominantly undergraduate institutions.
Research and Instruction
His teaching interests are in the field of organic chemistry, and he maintains a research program in polymer chemistry.
Along with his teaching and research interests, Collard has served in leadership roles of on-campus experiential learning programs including National Science Foundation (NSF) Research Experiences for Undergraduate programs (REU), a 3M Undergraduate Summer Research Program, an NSF Scholarships in STEM & Living-Learning Community, and a number of U.S. Department of Education Graduate Assistantships in Areas of National Need programs (GAANN).
Collard also co-directs the Chemistry Collaborations, Workshops, and Communities of Scholars (cCWCS) faculty development initiative, which has engaged thousands of faculty members from institutions across the United States.
He has authored or co-authored more than 100 papers in refereed journals. Collard’s commitment to individual student research mentorship has included 24 Ph.D. graduates, 12 M.S. graduates, and 37 undergraduate researchers.
Honors and Awards
During his tenure, Collard has received all three of the Institute’s top teaching awards: the Class of 1940 W. Roane Beard Outstanding Teacher Award, the Class of 1940 Howard Ector Outstanding Teacher Award, and the Eichholz Award.
He is also the recipient of the Georgia Tech Class of 1934 Outstanding Use of Educational Technology Award and the Outstanding Ph.D. Advisor Award.
His work in undergraduate education has also garnered awards from the National Science Foundation, the Camille and Henry Dreyfus Foundation, and the Research Corporation for the Advancement of Science.
In 2017, he was the recipient of the University System of Georgia’s Felton Jenkins Jr. Hall of Fame Faculty Award in recognition of his commitment to teaching and student success.
Collard received his Ph.D. in Chemistry from the University of Massachusetts – Amherst in 1989 and a Bachelor of Science in Chemical Sciences from the University of East Anglia, U.K., in 1983.
Collard will serve until a new dean is named. A search chair and advisory committee will be selected in the next several weeks to conduct an international search for the College’s next leader. Jennifer Herazy, associate provost for Operations, will serve as search director.
EDITOR'S NOTE: This item is a slightly modified version of the original story by Susie Ivy published on June 1, 2018, in the Georgia Tech News Center.
Astronaut Lawrence DeLucas will reminisce his training to be a NASA astronaut and share his experiences flying on the Columbia Space Shuttle Mission STS-50, launched on June 25, 1992. He will descibe the materials, technology, and research performed in that mission and summarize the research underway on the International Space Station. He will discuss NASA's plans for a human-piloted mission to Mars.
Lawrence DeLucas' talk is part of "An Evening of Wonder: Life and Art on Earth and Beyond." This astrobiology fun-and-learning event for the whole family is made possible by the organizers of AbGradCon 2018.
AbGradCon (Astrobiology Graduate Conference) is a popular gathering of early-career scientists interested in astrobiology research, held in a different location every year.
For the foreseeable future, the only real tool to find life on potentially habitable planets that are light years away from Earth is to probe their atmospheres for biological fingerprints of life, called biosignatures.
This approach has two drawbacks, according to School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences Assistant Professor Christopher Reinhard. “Some biosignatures can be made by abiotic processes, leading to false positives. Others can be masked by processes that consume biosignatures, leading to false negatives.”
To overcome these problems, Reinhard and colleagues in the NASA Astrobiology Institute Alternative Earths and Virtual Planetary Laboratory Teams are proposing use of dynamic biosignatures based on seasonal changes in Earth’s atmosphere. The approach – described recently in Astrophysical Journal Letters – uses the seasonal variation of biologically important gases as a way to deal with false positives and false negatives, Reinhard says.
Seasonality of Atmospheric Gases
As Earth orbits the sun, its tilted axis means different regions receive more rays at different times of the year. The most visible signs of this phenomenon are changes in the weather and length of the days, but atmospheric composition is also affected. For example, in the Northern Hemisphere, which contains most the world’s vegetation, plant growth in summer results in noticeably lower levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The reverse is true for oxygen.
“Atmospheric seasonality is a promising biosignature because it is biologically modulated on Earth and is likely to occur on other inhabited worlds,” says lead author Stephanie Olson, a graduate student in the Department of Earth Sciences of the University of California, Riverside (UCR). “Inferring life based on seasonality wouldn’t require a detailed understanding of alien biochemistry because it arises as a biological response to seasonal changes in the environment, rather than as a consequence of a specific biological activity that might be unique to Earth.”
In the study – funded by the NASA Astrobiology Institute and the National Science Foundation Frontiers in Earth System Dynamics – the researchers identify the opportunities and pitfalls in monitoring the seasonal ebbs and flows of oxygen, carbon dioxide, methane, and ozone. They also modeled fluctuations of atmospheric oxygen on a life-bearing planet with low oxygen content, just as Earth was billions of years ago. “Based on these evaluations,” Reinhard says, “seasonal variations in ozone could be a sensitive biosignature on planets with undetectable levels of oxygen in their atmospheres.”
Ozone as Indicator of Life
At Georgia Tech, the Reinhard research group develops comprehensive models for the production and maintenance of robust atmospheric biosignatures on habitable planets, and it played a key role in developing the concept of ozone seasonality as a fingerprint for life on low-oxygen planets. The idea emerged in part as an answer to the “biosignature blind spot” problem Reinhard and colleagues posed in the 2017 Astrobiology paper “False Negatives for Remote Life Detection on Ocean-Bearing Planets: Lessons from Early Earth.”
“We are particularly excited about the prospect of characterizing oxygen fluctuations at the low levels we would expect to find on an early version of Earth,” says Timothy Lyons, a professor of biogeochemistry in UCR’s Department of Earth Science and director of the Alternative Earths Astrobiology Center. “Seasonal variations as revealed by ozone would be most readily detectable on a planet like Earth was billions of years ago, when most life was still microscopic and ocean dwelling.”
“Although we think the conceptual framework for this approach is robust,” Reinhard says, “observing and quantifying seasonality represents a daunting challenge. Research will need to take into account modulation of seasonal signals by the angle at which we observe a planet and the shape of its orbit, among other factors. Nevertheless, seasonality represents a potentially powerful approach toward finding life beyond our solar system.”